There just has to be something more, you know?

by Academian 10y24th Mar 201079 comments


A non-materialist thought experiment.

Okay, so you don't exactly believe in the God of the Abrahamic scriptures verbatim who punishes and sets things on fire and lives in the sky.  But still, there just has to be something more than just matter and energy, doesn't there?  You just feel it.  If you don't, try to remember when you did, or at least empathize with someone you know who does.  After all, you have a mind, you think, you feel — you feel for crying out loud — and you must realize that can't be made entirely of things like carbon and hydrogen atoms, which are basically just dots with other dots swirling around them.  Okay, maybe they're waves, but at least sometimes they act like dots.  Start with a few swirling dots… now add more… keep going, until it equals love.  It just doesn't seem to capture it.

In fact, now that you think about it, you know your mind exists.  It's right there: it's you.  Your "experiencing self".  Maybe you call it a spirit or soul; I don't want to fix too rigid a description in case it wouldn't quite match your own.  But cogito-ergo-sum, it's definitely there!  By contrast, this particle business is just a mathematical concept — a very smart one, of course — thought of by scientists to explain and predict a bunch of carefully designed and important measurements.  Yes, it does that extremely well, and you're not downplaying that.  But that doesn't explain how you see blue, or taste strawberry — something you have direct access to.  Particles might not even exist, if that means anything to say.  It might just be that observation itself follows a mathematical pattern that we can understand better by visualizing dots and waves.  They might not be real.

So actually, your mind or spirit — that thing you feel, that you — is much more certain an extant than scientific "matter".  That must be something very important to understand!  Certainly you can tell your mind has different parts to it: hearing, seeing, reasoning, moving, remembering, empathizing, picturing, yearning… When you think of all the things you can remember alone — or could remember — the complexity of all that data is mindbogglingly vast.  Imagine the task of actually having to take it all apart and describe it completely… it could take aeons…

Imagine then, for a moment, that you could isolate just one part: some relatively insignificant portion of your vast mind or spirit.  Let's say a single, second-long experience of walking with a friend; certainly minute compared to the entirety of your life.  But still, an extremely complex object.  Think about all you are perceiving in that second...  your mind is incredible!  No, I'm not talking about your brain, I'm talking about your experiencing self, your mind, your essence, however you might think about that experiencing entity.  Now imagine isolating some small aspect of that memory with your friend, discarding the massively detailed experiences that are your vision, your sense of balance, how hungry you are for nachos… Say, a concerned awareness of your friend's emotional state at that instant.  This too is a highly complex object, so it too has parts, which I may not be able to describe in finer granularity, but they're there.  Now let's say you're some kind of super-introspective savant, who can sense the conceptual fragments of still finer, sharper aspects of this…

I'm doing my best here to approach what "a tiny piece of your soul" might mean.  But no matter; perhaps you have a better idea of what that is.  In any case, suppose you somehow isolated this tiny fraction of a mind or spirit, and took it out of the context of all the countless other details we didn't look at.  Now it's disconnected from all that other stuff: vision, balance, nachos, nuances of empathy…

Suppose you managed to somehow look at this object, by which I mean observe it in some way — It is part of your mind, after all — and consider a possible outcome. So that we're picturing roughly the same thing, imagine that as you observed it, this piece of your soul is not writhing and thrashing about spasmodically, but appears in fact calm, and focused on its task.  Suppose it moved regularly, like maybe in a circle, for example.  How curious it could turn out to be!  What would we call this tiny, almost infinitesimal speck of your mind?

I say we call it "electron".

Like many readers of this blog, I am a materialist.  Like many still, I was not always.  Long ago, the now-rhetorical ponderings in the preceding post in fact delivered the fatal blow to my nagging suspicion that, somehow, materialism just isn't enough…

Finish reading in: The two insights of materialism

(these were originally a single post, so some comments below refer to the sequel.)